Tea and tete-a-tete With Debu Bhattacharya

Debu Bhattacharya articulates through anecdotes, and sportingly plays ball when we pitch back and forth in time. “You can ask me anything you
want,” he says with an infectious smile that sets the tone for our conversation. The low-profile managing director of Hindalco most often lets his work do the talking, but we were privileged to hear it from him. Even if deflected via anecdotes.

Quiet confidence is his hallmark and we learnt he had it from his college-days. “The stint at IIT Kharagpur changed a lot of things for me. The standard of education was phenomenal and the opportunities to take part in things were enormous,” says Bhattacharya, an alumnus of the chemical engineering class of 1970, who interestingly, first finished his graduation from Kolkata’s Presidency College.

“It was camaraderie of a different kind. You lived on campus and made some great friends,” he recalls with a tinge of nostalgia. Nor was it just about books and academics. “We had a lot of extra-curricular activities and I was pretty good at football and cricket.” Queried on what was the most useful thing he picked up at IIT, his quick reply was, “I can say that we learnt a lot from each other without any shame!”

Back then, a good job meant a long stint in an organisation. In 1970, Bhattacharya had the option of going to the US. Instead, he chose to join what was then Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL). “It was a prized job those days and they were paid us Rs 1,000 a month,” he says with a laugh as we try to calculate how much that would buy 40-odd years ago.

Well, it was certainly enough for the technical trainee to find accommodation in Mumbai’s YMCA, then in the upmarket Wodehouse Road. “I spent two years at the YMCA. We had a five and half day week at Levers and weekends were a lot of fun,” Bhattacharya adds as tea and cakes arrive alongside some rather tempting pizzas.

We ask him gingerly if he recalls his first car and it comes to him like a flash. “Of course I remember. My first car was a Fiat that was 14 years old,” he says. It wasn’t the best car to have but there was a positive fallout. “It conked out without a warning every week so I became a real good mechanic at the end of it,” he says, recalling that it faithfully acted up on the day he had to pick up his mother-in-law from the station.

Bhattacharya made the most of his 28 years at HLL. “I think we worked with a sense of purpose,” he says even as he recounts a couple of interesting events during his tenure with the Anglo-Dutch major. One was during an overseas trip which incidentally was Bhattacharya’s first ever. “It was to attend a course in London where I had a chance to interact with a lot of other Indians. I saw first-hand the brightness of Indians and what they were capable of,” he points out.

That trip to London started his romance with the city as well. “I have a lot of memories from that first trip and London, to this day, remains my favourite destination. I just feel at home there,” he says.

In the midst of a rather grueling work schedule — which he confesses to enjoying tremendously — he has had some incredible moments. Over the last decade that he has spent with the AV Birla Group, he is immensely proud of the acquisition of Novelis – which to his mind is a case study – and the buyouts of Indal and Pennar . Naturally we ask what made him change jobs after almost three decades with HLL.

It was at an All India Management Association event in Mumbai that he met Kumar Mangalam Birla. “He has this ability to charm you by not speaking very much. He is a visionary,” says Bhattacharya. He soon succumbed to overtures and decided to take up the offer with the AV Birla Group where he started off as MD of Indo-Gulf and head of the Aditya Birla Management Corporation. “If HLL was a great place to develop one’s professional acumen, the best thing about the AV Birla Group is that one becomes an entrepreneur,” he says matter-of-factly.

Those who know Bhattacharya say he is at work by 7am and puts in long hours that eat into his weekend too. “I believe in a few things. I do not attend a meeting unless I can add value. I do not do anything unless I can excel. And I maintain that it is important to keep one’s word,” he says categorically. The the tinge of regret is also hard to miss when he says he’d like to spend more time with his family.

Once off work, there’s films for relaxation. “Primarily, I watch English films. A recent one that I enjoyed was Lions for Lambs where Tom Cruise plays a senator,” he says. Music is another stressbuster and Bhattacharya lists songs by Tagore and Kishore Kumar as among his favourites. A voracious reader, he actually goes through at least two books at a time. One at present is Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. “I avoid reading management books!” he says with a grin. After working for close to 40 years in a developing corporate scenario like India, he could write a few management books himself!

From Economic Times